How quickly fortunes can change in football.
On Good Friday, ahead of Oxford’s visit to the SOL, we were feeling buoyant. The table looked favourable, we were within striking distance of the top two, and automatic promotion was very much in our own hands.
Ninety minutes later, we had duly beaten Oxford and excitement began to grow. It really felt as though it was on. All we had to do was hold our nerve, take advantage of the games in hand, and that coveted automatic promotion slot would be ours.
Since then? Collapse. Total and utter collapse. Seven games without a win. Numerous insipid performances. The ongoing and perplexing exile of Chris Maguire. The unsolved midfield conundrum, and so on, and so forth.
Suddenly, from being portrayed as the forward-thinking, progressive manager we’d been crying out for, Lee Johnson now finds himself subject to growing doubts and murmurings about his managerial credentials. Even taking into account the situation he walked into when he was appointed, there can be no denying that our current situation mirrors the end of Jack Ross’s first season, for which he was vilified and has never been forgiven for since.
Okay, the material circumstances were different, but the fact is that, in 2019, automatic promotion was in our hands and we let it slip, and two years later, history has repeated itself, in an equally galling fashion.
For now, you could just about say that Johnson remains (largely) in credit, but for how much longer? We are limping, instead of sprinting, towards the end of the season, and we look a million miles away from a promotion-winning team. Right now, would you back us to succeed where the class of 1998, 2004, and 2019 failed, and end our appalling playoff record? The prospect of a summer rebuild, backed by the resources of Kyril Louis-Dreyfus, might already be at the forefront of Johnson’s mind (he’ll certainly know which players are staying and going, without a doubt), but if we were to fall short of promotion, on the back of this miserable end-of-season run, how much patience would he be afforded?
As ever, if we grasp firmly enough, we can cling onto some key aspects that led to this latest dismal defeat.
Yes, Chris Maxwell in the Blackpool goal turned in a stunning performance, peppered with countless superb saves, and yes, Sullay KaiKai’s goal, a rasping twenty-yarder that flashed past a helpless Lee Burge, was classy, but in reality, Sunderland simply didn’t do enough, particularly during a thoroughly turgid first half, to win the game.
Our performance lacked energy, ferocity, creativity, and far too many players chose a bad day to have an off-night, not least Aiden McGeady, who looked a mile short of his brilliant best, and even the likes of Denver Hume and the usually-energetic Luke O’Nien looked weary and bereft of their usual zip.
Indeed, at times, the game seemed to resemble a testimonial or one of those classic down-tempo, end-of-season games, where neither team has anything tangible to play for. It would be unfair to suggest the players weren’t ‘putting it in’ but they didn’t show anywhere near enough fight or guile, and that was simply unacceptable.
As it so often has in seasons gone by, the question of this team’s mental strength has reappeared in recent weeks like a menacing shadow.
Do we lack the nerve to stand strong and not wilt when the crunch games arrive?
Is the issue genuinely mental, or does it simply boil down to raw ability?
In recent games, Sunderland have often looked worryingly leaderless, and nobody has really grabbed a game and driven the team forward ruthlessly.
Twenty-five years ago this week, the legendary Kevin Ball led us to the Premiership in no-nonsense fashion, as Peter Reid’s on-field general. Suffice it to say, nobody in our current squad is filling that role, and it is plain to see.
With two regular-season games left, time is running out for us to build momentum for a playoff run. Somehow, Johnson needs to dig two wins out against Plymouth and Northampton, and then start planning for what will undoubtedly be a very fraught conclusion to the season.
Given their often unpredictable nature, playoff success isn’t impossible, but at the moment, it’s looking highly unlikely.